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Margaret Thatcher: the woman who killed conservatism

Margaret Thatcher stands in the same relationship to the last five leaders of the Conservative Party as James T Kirk does to subsequent captains of USS Enterprise; they represent ideal types against which the fan base can haughtily dismiss other holders of the same job title as irredeemably insipid.

So powerfully does she dominate the mindset of the grassroots right, Tory and UKIP supporters alike, that they will dismiss the claim she was actually anything but a conservative in the ideological sense as simply preposterous. Most of the left, too, see Thatcher as the very yardstick by which to measure the creed.

Yet precisely this argument was once popular on the patrician wing of the party she headed, and still succeeds as immanent critique, demolishing her track record by the standards and presuppositions of the system of thought within which she nominally located herself. Not only was Thatcher no conservative, but she may well have put paid to the doctrine as a going concern, in this country at least.

Back in the mid-1970s, men such as Peter Walker and Sir Ian Gilmour were quick to realise that Thatcher represented not a continuation of, but rather a rupture with, the type of politics that had hitherto dominated the Conservative Party throughout the postwar period.

Indeed, the One Nation Tories – as they were known – made many criticisms of her that would sit easily in the mouth of One Nation Labour today.

Governments should abjure strident ideology, they opined, and stick to what they described as a ‘middle way’ between Old Labour statism and what was at that time called laissez-faire capitalism.

Taking their cue from older thinkers such as Burke, Disraeli and Shaftesbury, this layer counselled inclusiveness, insisting that all legitimate voices in society should be heard and have their interests taken into account.

Apparent broadness was entirely for show purposes, of course; whatever seats on tripartite bodies were doled out to a grateful TUC, the political function of Conservatism has always been to advance the interests of the finance and manufacturing capital and the aristocracy, granting such concessions as necessary to keep middle class and ‘angel in marble’ working class elements on board.

But the One Nation Tories did have a point about Thatcher, who rejected the outlook of those she nicknamed ‘the Wets’. In its place came a project inspired by Hayek’s update of nineteenth century liberalism, which deliberately took the postwar settlement apart, brick by brick.

The free market was extended as far as possible into social life, as state-owned industries were cheaply sold off, social housing provision rendered nugatory, the more combative unions smashed and the weaker ones weakened further still, and a relentless ideological struggle was waged against both social democracy and One Nation Toryism. None of this could have been farther from conservatism as my mother and father knew it.

The result was what we came to know as Thatcherism. However triumphant that dogma seemed in the 1980s – and in whatever splendid colours the dealers in nostalgia in the rightwing press paint it even now – it should not be forgotten that by the 1990s, it had rendered the Conservative Party unelectable.

So toxic was Thatcherism in the public mind at that point that David Cameron was forced to proclaim a determination to revert to a style and content of which Gilmour and Walker would have approved.

Who knows? In happier economic times, perhaps Cameron would even have tried to convert the Conservative Party back to conservatism. But the odd thing is, we don’t hear very much about

As we await the £10m funeral of Thatcher the woman, her ideas are very much still with us. It is conservatism that is buried and Thatcherism that is still alive.

2 Comments

  1. Rob the cripple says:

    Think what she killed off was socialism…

  2. Alan Hunter says:

    Thatcher, the midwife of New Labour.

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